Really? Recent Attacks on Artistic Freedom

Last week, the acclaimed YA novelist Ellen Hopkins, author of such groundbreaking works as Crank and Burned, was “uninvited” from the Teen Lit Fest. According to mediabistro.com, officials of the festival being held in Humble, Texas, were concerned with Hopkins’ rather frank treatment of such issues as drug abuse and prostitution. Earlier this month, a county library and a high school library in New Jersey both pulled from their shelves revolutionary voices, a collection of gay-themed short stories. The anthology, edited by Amy Sonnie, had been a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award in 2000. Today, I read that Annabel Lyon’s The Golden Mean, described in mediabistro as telling “the story of Alexander the Great’s childhood–as seen through the eyes of his adolescent tutor, Aristotle,”  has been removed from all gift shops of the BC Ferries company because, according to Lyon’s blog, “the trade paperback still features a [man’s] bare bum on the cover.” This despite the fact that it has made the shortlist for Canada’s literary award. Really? I mean, Really? These are not favorable signs for those who value the right to freedom of artistic expression.

With Banned Books Week almost exactly a month away, I think it’s imperative to shed light on the attempts of some in our society to stifle free expression. This “head-in-the-sand” approach, especially as it pertains to YA titles, does a grave disservice to young readers who seek and greatly benefit from honest treatments of sexual themes as an aid in their own forging of a mature sexual identity. I respect every person’s right to read or not to read the titles of his or her choosing. I respect a parents’ right to monitor their children’s book selections. I do not respect and will not accept, however, anyone’s attempt to control what texts I or my children read. I plan to “vote with my pocketbook” and purchase each of the aforementioned texts as a show of support to these authors and publishers.

Don’t Quit Your Day Job!

Last fall, I signed a two book deal with a major publisher for a healthy advance, especially according to the standards of the fiscally-conservative period the publishing world is currently experiencing and by virtue of my being a first-time novelist, yet tomorrow, I will return to the classroom and resume my job as a high school teacher and adjunct professor. Some of my friends, relatives, and colleagues wonder why I haven’t already retired from education and assumed a career as a full-time author. Let me explain.

 The reasons are many. Most importantly, I love the classroom. It is my soapbox, my stage, my therapist’s couch. Secondly, as an author of YA novels, teaching also keeps me in touch with my audience. It provides me first-hand knowledge of the language, interests, concerns, behaviors, tastes, etc. of the very readers of whom and to whom I write. Thirdly, I need to feel part of something larger than myself. Should I sit alone in my den, day after day pounding out sentences, I would soon be crazy. I want and need to belong to something that’s larger than myself for both my sanity’s sake and for maintaining a sense of perspective. Lastly, it would be foolhardy to walk away from a job that provides a steady income, health insurance, and a generous retirement system for one that guarantees none of those benefits.

 Although it is disheartening to the many who dream of signing a book deal in order to escape the drudgery of their work-a-day world in order to live the romantic life of an author, the fact is that dream is for most writers untenable – at least without giving one’s life over to some form of Bohemian existence, free from the responsibility of providing for a spouse and children. And, by the way, for the vast majority of published authors, the life isn’t so romantic anyway. Besides, the money isn’t as good as it seems.

Let me perform a quick case study using the figure of an advance of $100,000 (mainly, because I’m not very good at math and this is a nice, round figure). That quoted advance is a pre-tax amount. Between federal and state taxes and the self-employed business taxes which the author will be required to pay, somewhere between 40 – 45% of that advance the author will never see. Nor will the author see that advance in one lump sum; rather, it will be spread over a number of payments. For example, in my case I will receive a total of six payments as I meet deadlines set by the publisher. As for royalties, the author does not receive a penny until he has covered his advance, which in many instances never happens. At a 10 – 12% cut of the cover price of each hard back sold (the percentage changes for paperback, mass market paperback and e-book sales), that’s a lot of books that need to be sold to cover the advance, especially for a debut novelist lacking an established audience.

 So, I won’t be quitting my day job anytime soon, and will continue to try and squeeze in as much quality writing time in my already overloaded schedule as possible. For anyone who is fortunate enough to sign with a large publisher for a significant advance, my best advice is to immediately hire a financial planner and start saving your receipts.

Good but not Good Enough

Crusaders is the working title of my second novel. As currently planned with my agent and publisher, it will not be a serial continuation of the plot of So Shelly; however, it will share a setting and will include several of the minor characters from my first novel. The goal is to make the reader feel immediately at home when they recognize the environment and see a few familiar faces in the new novel. Should So Shelly be successful, a more direct sequel will be considered and is actually already partially written, but only time and sales will tell.

 Although it received a very enthusiastic endorsement from my agent as it is, I am currently giving Crusaders a complete overhaul. The revision process on this project has been quite extensive and challenging. I learned a great deal from my editor during the revision stage of completing So Shelly.  I feel that I have arrived at that stage with Crusaders, and  I am better prepared to complete it without the need of so much input from her.  Hopefully, by the time the manuscript lands on her desk this winter, it will be in a much more polished form than that in which the first novel was delivered.

 You might ask, “If your agent recognizes ‘hit potential’ [her words], why the revisionary overhaul?” The answer is that in my mind, as is, Crusaders is very good.  It would stand up quite nicely with the majority of YA novels currently on shelves.  My problem with it is that it is “very good,” but it’s not yet great, and it is too much like those other novels. It would be an interesting and entertaining read, but I don’t think it would cut deeply into the readers’ psyche, and if a book doesn’t do that, why write or read it?

 So, I am currently experimenting with the point-of-view, forming more rounded and idiosyncratic characters, turning some of the descriptive passages into action, and sharpening the thematic edges of Crusaders. If I’m successful, I truly believe it has potential to be a special book.  If I fail, it’s just a book. I’ll write another.

Keeping It Fresh: The Challenge of Penning the Follow-up Novel

One of the most attractive and compelling reasons for my signing with Random House/Delacorte was the offer of a two-book deal. After so many failed attempts at landing an agent to represent a single novel, the contractual promise of a second one was almost beyond belief.

As a result, I’m now chest-deep in the throes of writing that follow-up novel and facing the challenge of conquering the dreaded “sophomore jinx.” By contract, book two is due to my publisher a month before my debut novel will even be released. This reality has appropriately denied me the opportunity to languish in self-congratulation and to remain focused on the work of writing – even to the point that I sometimes have difficulty recalling elements of the first novel because my attention and energy has turned so completely to the second.

The most daunting challenges of writing this second novel have been to avoid cliché, the excessive use of stereotypes, and self-parody – all of which grow more tempting under the stress of a deadline. I find myself constantly having to ferret out these spoilers of fresh prose which slip into the narrative without my conscious intention. To guard against cliché, I’ve learned to be wary of scenes that flow too easily onto the page. Often, their ease of composition is due to the fact that they are not being originally generated as much as channeled from memories of like scenes in the countless narratives stored inside of my brain. As for stereotypes, although there is a legitimate use for conventional characters in fiction, they must be limited and carefully managed for their effect. It is very easy simply to add a trait or two to one of these cardboard cutouts and fool myself into believing that I’ve created a uniquely interesting character, when all I’ve done is placed a Groucho Marx nose and mustache over some tired stereotype. Finally, it’s important to avoid writing the same story over and over and to avoid becoming a reductive self-parodist. I know, I know. There are many highly successful authors who continually re-package the same basic plot, characters, setting, and themes, and it can be done. However, those authors who write by a formula must be primarily motivated by repeat sales to a largely homogenous group of readers. I would rather not write another book than simply retell and resell the same story again and again.

As I continue to revise and rewrite book two, these are some of the challenges with which I’m finding myself confronted.

Daunting but Doable

I recently listened to an interview with E. Keith Howick, the author of Blow us Away! Publishers’ Secrets for Successful Manuscripts, on The Writing Show podcast. Howick, who is also the president of WindRiver Publishing Inc., gave the following daunting statistics regarding the difficulty of seeing a manuscript from inception to a shelf in a major bookstore.

• There are approximately 20 million manuscripts in circulation in search of a publisher during the course of any given year.
• Of those, only 400,000 new titles will go to press, and half of those will be self-published, leaving only 200,000 titles to be printed by trade publishers each year or 2% of the 20 million manuscripts.
• At any given moment, the average big Barnes and Noble or Borders bookstore shelves approximately 12,000 books. With swapping out of titles, 20,000 different titles will sit on a shelf in one of these major chains in a year, and much of that space is taken by books that have been and will be stocked for a long time. If you’re doing the math, that means only 1 in 10 books published by the trades (not even counting those self-published) will ever sit in a shelf at B & N or Borders, or only .2% of the original 20 million manuscripts circulated each year end up on a shelf.

What’s the point? The point is that the competition is fierce. Aspiring, even established, authors must consistently present manuscripts to agents and editors that represent their work at its very best. I also firmly believe that it’s always better to have a sense of the risk/reward in any endeavor at the very beginning before one determines whether or not the time, effort, and energy required to pursue a goal is worth spending. If you are truly meant to be a writer, there will be no debating the answer to that question. These odds will not dissuade you from your goal, but they will illicit from you your very best effort and talents.

In a paraphrase of the words of Thomas Paine: that which we achieve easily, we esteem lightly. The extreme difficulty of achieving publication is exactly what makes being a published author so unique and worthwhile.

My debut novel, So Shelly, is available for pre-order at all major online bookstores including, Amazon:  http://www.amazon.com/So-Shelly-Ty-Roth/dp/0385739583/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1277759993&sr=1-1; Barnes and Noble:  http://search.barnesandnoble.com/So-Shelly/Ty-Roth/e/9780385739580/?itm=2&USRI=so+shelly; Borders:http://www.borders.com/online/store/Home;  Books-A-Million:http://www.booksamillion.com/product/9780385739580?id=4777602269282; and IndiBound: http://www.indiebound.org/book/9780385739580

No Rush to Market

When informed by my editor in October of 2009 that So Shelly was slotted for a Spring 2011 publication, it sounded like a date in Captain Kirk’s star log. “2011!” I thought. “Are there monks locked in the basement churning out copies by hand or what?” Today, with the release date a mere six months distant, I have learned to appreciate the necessity for and the wisdom of the deliberate pace of publishing.

As So Shelly sits ready to go to press, it is a much different book than the one I queried to my agent and she pitched to my editor a year ago. Over a four month period upon the initial signing with my publisher, the novel experienced two exhaustive rounds of editorial reads; each of which required major revisions to be made by me in response to their suggestions. It then received a meticulous read by a copyeditor followed by additional authorial revisions. Next, the manuscript was set in type and proofread with a comb of proverbially-fine teeth and returned to me again for revisions in the form of “last pass pages” with the novel, still in manuscript form, as it would appear when printed on actual pages. Here still, a full nine months removed from the purchase of the novel, final revisions were caught and made. The lesson is that many needed revisions only rise to the surface over the passing of much time and multiple viewings, which the deliberate pace of bringing a book to market allows.

A second purpose for no rush to market is to allow for the design team to experience similar stages of trial and error. There is no overstating the importance of creating an attention-grabbing cover that also accurately reflects the book’s content. Like the text, the artwork requires time to be imagined, brought to life, and viewed by many discerning eyes, including the editors’, the sales staff’s, and the author’s. Typically, the cover and jacket design experiences several workings before reaching a version upon which all involved can agree to support. Additionally, an often overlooked and always underappreciated stage in the design process is the interior design of a book. Choosing a font that matches the tone of the story and setting the type in a reader-friendly manner on the pages is fundamental to the text’s readability. Clearly, the importance of the visual artistry involved in the publishing of a book cannot be overstated, and it should never be hurried.

Finally, especially for a previously unpublished author, time is necessary for the author to build an online presence through such means as Facebook, Twitter, blogging, etc., and to network as extensively as possible, both online and off, with those who will aid in the selling and purchasing of his book. The publisher’s marketing department also requires a significant amount of time to plan a public relations strategy appropriate to the book and its target audience.

There is simply little to be gained in the rushing of a novel to market, but there is much to be lost should the revision process, visual design, and/or public relations strategy be rushed. A writer has only one opportunity to present a debut novel to the reading public and to make a positive impression which will, hopefully, result in the building of an faithful audience of readers. So Shelly’s pub date, which once felt as if eons distant, now seems to be hurrying toward me at light speed.

My debut novel, So Shelly, is available for pre-order at all major online bookstores including, Amazon:  http://www.amazon.com/So-Shelly-Ty-Roth/dp/0385739583/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1277759993&sr=1-1; Barnes and Noble:  http://search.barnesandnoble.com/So-Shelly/Ty-Roth/e/9780385739580/?itm=2&USRI=so+shelly; Borders:http://www.borders.com/online/store/Home;  Books-A-Million:http://www.booksamillion.com/product/9780385739580?id=4777602269282; and IndiBound: http://www.indiebound.org/book/9780385739580

NYC Trip

I just returned from a trip to NYC during which I met with my editor and much of the team of Random House/Delacorte representatives charged with bringing So Shelly to shelves next February. As a small town Ohio boy, who’d never been to New York City, I was already a bit overwhelmed when I was completely bowled over by my time spent inside the monolithic Random House Headquarters on Broadway. Soon, however, the kindness and enthusiasm of all I met involved with So Shelly put me at ease. It was in every way a “dream come true” experience that I hope every one of you with writing aspirations someday experiences. Although business was certainly at the core of the trip, there was plenty of time to have fun, a fact to which the following pictures attest:

Waiting on the Circle Line Boat Tour of Manhattan

In Central Park

Times Square

 

Outside "Billy Elliot" on Broadway

Trust: The Main Ingredient for Writing Success

One of, if not the key, ingredient to success as an author is trust. Trust in yourself and in those with whom you are partnered in your writing career.

The first and most important level of trust is that which you must place in yourself and your ability as a writer. For me, writing groups or partners or beta readers have never been conducive to my writing. It could be that I simply never found the right collaborators; however, in such situations, I usually found myself being drained of my originality and second guessing my writing instincts and choices. I attribute my breakthrough as a writer to the day I decided to go it alone and eschew seeking outside opinions or critiques. I’m not suggesting this sort of individualism for all writers, but it taught me to trust my natural storytelling abilities and to write with a conviction that attracts readers. A writer must believe that he has a story worth telling and that his unique voice provides the most effective means of telling it. Most published writers have achieved publication because they believed in themselves and their stories. Their success was not the result of good connections, good luck, or magic. Trust yourself!

The second level of necessary trust comes upon the acquisition of an agent. As a writer, almost by my nature, I am an artist, not a businessman. When the time arrived to pitch my work, I placed my entire trust in my agent’s hands. The beauty of the agent system is that the agent makes money when the author makes money. The agent is driven not solely by interest in you as an artist but by her own bottom line. Besides, I do not have the inclination, knowledge, or skill set required for pitching projects or negotiating contracts. Trust your agent and let her do her job. Trust your agent!

The third level of necessary trust is for those fortunate enough to sign with a publisher and to work with an editor. Editing is a peculiar art. It should not be confused with revision. Writers revise; they do not edit. Editors are the unsung heroes of publishing. Until I was fortunate enough to work with an editor, I had no idea of the extent to which their expertise is instrumental in bringing a manuscript to press. From the first draft delivered to my agent until the last pass pages, I fully trusted my editor’s finely-honed instincts for shaping a narrative for the market. At times, I didn’t agree with her suggestions, but unless I could fashion a very strong argument for resisting them, I took her advice. Artistic stubbornness might be romantic, but it is rarely conducive to composing market-ready stories. In the end, my trust in her talents resulted in a far superior book than my agent and I sold to her in the beginning. Trust your editor!

The proffering of one’s trust is always a dicey proposition; however, if you have any hope of cracking the very tough shell of mainstream publishing, you must be willing to trust, or, trust me, your odds of success are small.